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Fabulous, Fabulous California : VINELAND by Thomas Pynchon (Little, Brown: $19.95; 385 pp.; 0-316-72444-0)

December 31, 1989|Frank McConnell | McConnell, whose third novel, "The Frog King," will be published next July, is also the author of "Four Post War American Novelists: Bellow, Mailer, Barth and Pynchon" (University of Chicago Press)

Let's begin by dealing with the Inevitable Dumb Question. This is, as everybody is supposed to have heard, the first novel in 17 years by the Howard Hughes of American letters, the elusive Thomas Pynchon, whose last novel, "Gravity's Rainbow," is thought by many (including your reviewer) to be the most stunning American fiction of at least this century. For those who like occult resemblances (and Pynchon certainly does), 17 years also is the interval between Joyce's "Ulysses" (1922) and his "Finnegans Wake" (1939). So, as I said, arises the IDQ: Is "Vineland" as great as "Gravity's Rainbow"?

The answer, of course, is that if you can really ask something like that, you are probably also the sort who tries to decide which of Fred Astaire's numbers are better than which others.

"Vineland" is, quite simply, one of those books that will make the world-- our world, our daily chemical-preservative, plastic-wrapped bread--a little more tolerable, a little more human. Kafka says somewhere that the books we need are the books that are ice axes to break up the frozen sea within ourselves; and Pynchon, here as he always has, makes the cut.

Like Astaire, and like two of his other spiritual comrades, Thelonious Monk and Walt Whitman, Pynchon has grown by remaining the same. The voice--absolutely unmistakable and absolutely inimitable--has not changed since "V" (1963) and "The Crying of Lot 49" (1966). By very fast turns vulgar, stand-up comic, elegiac, bright-kid silly (do you know what a "fecoventilatory collision" might be?), plangent, and heartbreakingly, theologically serious, it is a complex and perfectly articulated instrument. It is--OK, I'll say it-- the American voice of the late 20th Century, the seismograph and the horoscope--amid a debasing popular culture, a manic technology, and a progressively sclerotic politics--of our search for--what? Well, you know, for salvation.

This isn't to say that Pynchon is both a political and a religious writer as much as to say that, at his level of giftedness, those two terms either work together or don't work at all. He has, from the beginning, had One Big Story to tell, a story that--like Faulkner, like Joyce--he keeps repeating, fine-tuning, and (lucky for us) rediscovering. It is the Story of the Unwilling Cyborg. A character, quite by accident, discovers that he/she is a victim, may even a central target, of a massive conspiracy--called, in "V," "The Plot Which Has No Name"--which involves the whole baroque tapestry of modern history and whose final goal is the economically desirable obliteration of free will from Planet Earth. And having made this discovery, the Pynchon hero spends the rest of the book exploring the intricacies of the omnivorous Plot and seeking a way out of its forking paths, a way back home.

How simplistic, how paranoid, you might say: how very '60s. The Establishment as the Big Bad Wolf versus the Free Spirit as Goldilocks (though this time around maybe without the divine intervention of the Kindly Woodsman). And yes, it is a kind of fairy tale (Pynchon's own allegorical bent virtually forces you to write about his concepts using Capital Letters), and yes, it is simple. But it is also a brilliant reexamination of what has remained, from Jefferson and Emerson through Williams S. Burroughs and Norman Mailer, the only real American theme: the proposition that if, with these principles and this continent, we cannot bring about a truly kind and gentle community (not the wimpish, "kinder, gentler" thing)--then we are, of all men, the most to be pitied.

Hence the title. "Vineland" is a mythic town in far northern California, where the book's frenetic action begins and ends. But it is also, of course, Vinland--as in the Norse Vinland saga. It is the aboriginally discovered New World, the great good place as it was before Columbus and Ferdinand and their inheritors Jay Gould and Donald Trump converted it into a shopping mall. Part of "Vineland's" astonishing power, by the way, is that while Pynchon never stoops to make these connections, they become, by the halfway mark, unavoidable.

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